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Ringing in Harmony: Delaware’s Handbell Choir Tradition

handbell cluster

In Wyoming, Delaware, the sound of joy rings out from the Mitten Memorial Handbell Choir. Founded in 1986 with a donated three-octave set of bells, by 2001 the group had grown to 15 regular ringers and a five-octave set worth about $15,000. This growth reflects a broader trend in Delaware, where handbell choirs have become an integral part of many church communities, especially during the Christmas season. 

Across the state, from Lewes to Wilmington, handbell choirs enhance worship services and community events. Bethel United Methodist in Lewes, First United Methodist in Wilmington, and Seaford’s St. John’s United Methodist all boast handbell choirs. In Wilmington, Good Shepherd Lutheran, Concord Lutheran, Central Presbyterian, and Westminster Presbyterian join the ranks. In total, there are about two dozen church handbell choirs in Delaware. 

Handbell choirs are particularly common among Methodists, Lutherans, and Presbyterians due to a confluence of historical, theological, and practical factors. The origins of handbells can be traced back to the English “change ringing” tradition of the 17th century, where sets of tuned bells were rung in mathematical patterns. This practice gradually adapted for musical performance, leading to their introduction in churches, particularly within England. As European immigrants, including many Lutherans and Presbyterians, settled in America, they brought these traditions with them, integrating handbells into their worship practices. 

side view of ringers in action

During the 19th and 20th centuries, church music programs expanded significantly, especially within Protestant denominations. The Sunday school movement and the establishment of church choirs created a demand for engaging and participatory forms of worship music, making handbells an attractive option. The Protestant emphasis on congregational involvement aligns with the inclusivity of handbell choirs, which are accessible even to beginners. This inclusivity reflects the theological principle of the priesthood of all believers, promoting active participation in worship. 

Handbell music enhances the worship experience with its unique sound and visual appeal. The ethereal quality of handbell music complements the liturgical traditions of these denominations, which often include rich musical elements. This distinctive musical form not only enriches services but also resonates deeply with congregational and communal worship. 

Moreover, handbell choirs serve a significant educational purpose. Many Protestant churches prioritize music education as part of their ministry, particularly for children and youth. Handbell choirs provide an excellent platform for teaching music theory, rhythm, and ensemble performance. This educational aspect makes handbell choirs valuable components of church music programs, fostering musical development within the congregation. 

group of bells in church sanctuary with poinsettias in background

In Delaware, this educational aspect is evident in churches like the Wyoming United Methodist Church, where the Mitten Memorial Handbell Choir has inspired the formation of two youth bell choirs. Mike Stockslager, one of the original members of the choir, explains, “You can get a lot of different sounds out of a bell depending on how you use it.” Stockslager’s family involvement in the choir—including his mother, sister, wife, aunt, and niece—demonstrates how handbell ringing can become a multi-generational activity within church communities. 

Denominational support plays a crucial role in the prevalence of handbell choirs. Organizations such as the United Methodist Church, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA), and Presbyterian Church (USA) have robust music ministries that actively promote handbell ringing. These denominations offer resources, workshops, and festivals, encouraging the formation and continuation of handbell choirs. This institutional backing reinforces the practice and ensures its sustainability within church communities. 

The tradition of handbell ringing has become deeply embedded in the cultural fabric of these denominations over time. The sense of community and continuity fostered by handbell choirs contributes to their enduring popularity. These choirs often perform at special services, church anniversaries, and community events, highlighting their integral role in church life. 

double mallets on a bell

In Delaware, this community aspect is particularly evident during the Christmas season. “We like to think we’re part of the festiveness of the season,” says Kerry W. Dietz, longtime artistic director of the Wilmington Handbell Ensemble and, from 1994-2018, director of handbells at Newark’s Ebenezer Methodist Church. The Wilmington Ensemble and the Capital Ringers of Dover, another community choir, typically play a dozen or more concerts/services during the yuletide season. 

Dietz explains, “There is a lot of music written for bells at Christmas, and people like to hear carols with bells.” Popular selections like “We Wish You a Merry Christmas,” “Jingle Bells,” and “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day” are staples of many Delaware handbell choir performances during Advent. 

The appeal of handbell choirs extends beyond traditional church settings. The Mitten Memorial Handbell Choir, for instance, plays twice a month at their home church in Wyoming but also performs several times a year throughout the community. They’ve even played at Dover’s First Night celebration, expanding their repertoire to include more diverse pieces like “Calypso Christmas” with its reggae beat. 

woman in a ringer lineup

Sherry Roscoe, the choir’s director, attributes part of the success of handbell choirs to the glorious “joyful” sound they make, but also to the ease with which a person can learn to play. “Here you have just a couple of notes you have to learn,” she explains. She adds, “Maybe it’s something people aren’t so familiar with,” trying to explain the growing popularity of bell choirs. 

Dave Williams, another original member of the choir, adds, “As long as you can count, we can teach you to read the music. It’s an enjoyment thing.” He further elaborates on the impact of handbell music in church services: “It’s part of the warm fuzzies they get from the service. It’s part of coming to church, like the choir. It’s something we can contribute.” 

This accessibility is part of what makes handbell choirs so popular. “Handbells are perfect for junior high voices that are changing,” says Carol Coughenour, former director of handbells at First Presbyterian of Newark. Coughenour notes that playing handbells often appeals to people who love music but don’t sing. 

3 bells in a still life

Of course, handbell ringing requires teamwork and precision. It takes close attention and sharp reflexes to construct a melody with a team of 13 to 16 ringers. Roscoe explains, “It’s so much a team effort. You rely on each other. You are so interconnected.” This collaborative aspect contributes to the sense of community within handbell choirs. 

One of Delaware’s notable contributions to handbell music comes from Michael Helman, who served as the Director of Music and Organist at St. Paul’s United Methodist Church in Wilmington for fifteen years, from 1991 to 2006. Helman founded the Wilmington Handbell Ensemble in 2000, which remains a prominent community-based handbell group. More importantly, he has written over 140 bell pieces, known for their melodic richness, rhythmic complexity, and harmonic depth. His compositions, suitable for various skill levels and liturgical settings, have significantly influenced the handbell music community. Popular works such as “Easter Joy” and “Fantasy on King’s Weston” showcase his ability to create engaging and challenging music. Helman’s educational pieces aid in skill development for beginners, while his more advanced compositions have garnered recognition and frequent performances at national and international festivals. 

Helman’s experience with handbells has given him unique insights into the art form. “There’s no room to hide in a handbell choir. If you miss a note, everybody knows it,” he explains. This vulnerability is part of what makes handbell performance so compelling. Helman elaborates, “It’s really a team effort. If you play a violin, you’re responsible for every note. But with handbells, the melody is being carried by three, four or five different people. And if somebody’s missing, you’re missing notes.” 

bells with congregation in background

This collaborative nature of handbell choirs aligns with the broader themes of community and teamwork that characterize these ensembles. Helman also highlights the versatility of handbells as instruments. “Handbells produce different sounds depending on how they’re played,” he says. “You can knock them against the table pad for a muted tone, strike them with a mallet for a sharper ring, or arc them through the air for a kind of Doppler effect.” This range of techniques allows for a rich variety of musical expressions, contributing to the unique sound of handbell choirs. 

The impact of handbell choirs extends beyond the music itself. For many Delawareans, these choirs hold deep personal significance. Jean Mitten, who donated the first set of bells to the Wyoming United Methodist Church in memory of her music-loving husband, sees the choir as a living memorial. “I think they are tremendous,” she told the News Journal in January 2001. Explaining her decision to donate the bells, Mitten added, “I didn’t want the money just sitting there. [The bells] were something the church would have liked to have. It was an idea of the minister then, and I liked his idea.” 

Gwen Pritchett, another member of the Mitten Memorial Handbell Choir, attributes the group’s success to their dedication: “We love what we do.” This passion for handbell ringing is reflected in the commitment of choir members. 

Kerry Dietz of the Wilmington Handbell Ensemble notes, “Handbells don’t have a wide dynamic range, so we work at playing soft and loud. It takes a lot of practice to really play well.” To achieve maximum expressiveness, his bell choir begins weekly practices in September for the December concerts. 

As the holiday season approaches, Delaware’s handbell choirs prepare to fill churches, community centers, and public spaces with their distinctive sound. From the historic churches of Wilmington to the small-town sanctuaries of Wyoming and beyond, these ensembles continue a tradition that blends musical artistry, community spirit, and holiday cheer. In doing so, they not only preserve a unique form of musical expression but also create new memories and traditions for generations of Delawareans. 

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